Recessions Could Shorten Your Life


If you live through a recession during your late 50s or very early 60s, there's a chance it could shorten your life.

That's the grim finding of a new working paper from Wellesley College. The researchers looked at U.S. mortality data between 1969 and 2008 for Americans who suffered through an economic downturn as they neared retirement age. If an adult lived through a period of rising unemployment between the ages of 57 and 61, the study found, their probability surviving later into old age shrank. Those who were slightly older or slightly younger weren't impacted in a statistically significant way. 

That pattern is captured in the graph below, which shows the probability of survival at later ages dipping for 58 and 60-year-olds. Their somewhat older and younger peers see their chances of living on stay relatively flat.       


The study's authors can't prove why recessions have this impact, but they offer a few theories. Older workers, they write, are prone to long periods of unemployment during recessions and as a result are more likely to skip out on medical care because of cost, which could hurt their health down the line. Adults over the age of 62 may not have to make the same sacrifices, because they can rely on social security and eventually Medicare to make up for income or health insurance they might lose with a job. 

So how bad is this news for Baby Boomers, who have made up a disproportionate fraction of the long-term unemployed since the Great Recession? On the one hand, the increased chance of dying isn't that high for any one individual. According to the paper's calculations, if someone in their late fifties lives through a major recession like we had in 1980 or 2007, their chance of living into their 70s drops by 0.0015 to 0.0020 percentage points.

That's not so frightening. If you assume all of the impact falls on workers who actually lose their jobs, however, the calculus gets more worrisome. A "worker who lost their job at age 58 as a result of a recession could be expected to live three fewer a result," the paper states. 

Ultimately, trying to attach super-precise figures to these kinds of trends is always a bit dicey -- we are, after all, talking about small probabilities impacting millions and millions of individuals. So instead, it might be best just to take this study as a reminder: People give up real things when the economy sours, including, sometimes, their health. 

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Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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